More Retention Tension

Paterson and East Windsor Township join the list of departments dealing with severe exit wounds

By Mitchell Krugel 

The 57th Paterson Local 1 member to leave the department since 2019 sat in her patrol car contemplating a decision many fellow officers have faced. She was not able to make rent in June.

So now there was a question: Pay the rent or …

“You can’t sit in the squad car crunching numbers all day, thinking about whether you’re going to be able to eat tonight,” asserted Local 1 President Angel Jimenez. “So the officer was on the fence of leaving, but she said she missed her rent for the month of June, so she just made the decision to leave.”

The tracking of exit wounds that departments across New Jersey are continuing to nurse reveals that the problem of officer retention is growing to epic proportions. Like the reports about Madison and Atlantic City in the July issue of NJ Cops Magazine, Paterson and East Windsor are also clicking their wounds.

Scrolling through the East Windsor Local 191 Facebook page leads to a July 12 post documenting a survey conducted of 21 of its younger members who are still currently in salary guide steps. The survey focused on officers’ intentions of remaining with or leaving this agency and why. An astonishing 85 percent reported they have either considered leaving or are actively participating in other agencies’ application processes.

A review of Paterson’s erosion reveals that in addition to the six members who have departed in 2023, 29 left in 2022 and 11 departed in 2021. These are all members who have left for greener pastures, including 25 to the rent-facilitating salaries in Bergen County.

“Yeah, mass exodus,” Jimenez intentionally understated. And then when reporting how all officers hired after Aug. 1, 2016, face 28 steps to reaching top pay has contributed to the average of 25 members leaving each of the past three years, Jimenez quipped, “The city understands there’s a retention issue.”

Another post from Local 191 unequivocally articulates the retention issue, pinpointing, “The most common reasons cited for the desire to leave were lack of competitive pay, out-of-date equipment and unreasonable township administration.” And yet another post puts the problem at the feet of Mayor Janice Mironov, described as a my-way-or-the-highway elected official “who struggles with discerning the distinct difference between fiscal conservatism and administrative neglect.”

“That’s the piling-on effect,” Local 191 President Danny Fernandez confirmed. “When you’re paid adequately, you can kind of suck it up. But once your pay scale drops well below the county average, it becomes almost intolerable.”

This way to the exits

The revolving door in Paterson only starts to spin because starting pay is $16.31 per hour, just a hair higher than minimum wage. Take-home pay is barely more than $800 every two weeks. Rent on a reasonable two-bedroom apartment is $1,800 per
month. So do the math.

When Jimenez started on the job in 2005, Paterson had its own academy. Now, recruits attend the Bergen County Academy, where they hear from others who are starting at $50,000 per year and get bumped up to $70,000 upon graduation.

“And then we have to explain to those with starting pay of $33,000 how long it will take to get to $70,000,” Jimenez reported. “I explained that to City Hall. I told them pay doesn’t have to be like Bergen, but it has to be livable.”

Jimenez explains that getting new vehicles and new equipment is very challenging, though it has improved a bit since the NJ attorney general’s office assumed control of the department. But the biggest problem is that Paterson members have to wait up to six months to get paid for working a road job.

“It’s like, ‘Well, I guess I’m not paying my car payment this month. I’ll pay this bill instead,’” Jimenez stated. “It’s a constant juggle act. That’s what our members get burnt out over.”

The city of Paterson is bringing on a new vendor to run the road jobs, and the council is on the verge of approving that. But nobody seems to want to wait. Two Paterson officers recently left after just eight months on the job.

Department staffing is at 405 officers, down nearly 100 from when Jimenez came on and approximately 35 short of the approved TO. (Incidentally, that is the same TO as for the Paterson fire department.)

“At the end of the day, the officers are angry. They are discouraged,” Jimenez described. “People that walk in here can’t believe the conditions we’re working under. They can’t believe the fact that we’re not getting paid on time for work. I mean, it’s unheard of.”

Exit poll

Two East Windsor officers who exited during the past two months left for better pay. But what’s happening in this Mercer County department that is down eight from its staffing high of 52 is not just about the money.

The first clue about how the township values its officers comes when seeing that the parking lot behind the police station where officers park their personal car is full of potholes. Another clue to the dilapidated working conditions was all over the TV news media on May 31 when, for the fifth time this year, fecal matter backed up through the toilets and drains of the building, flooding the department floors in the entryway, hallways, the women’s locker room, the family room that is a safe space for victims of domestic violence and those seeking shelter, and holding cells. According to a Facebook post:

“It would be inhumane to house a prisoner in these poor and unsanitary conditions. For clarification, the DVRT/Family Room was the most contaminated area, and the carpet was saturated in sewage. We would never want to house a prisoner in these inhumane, unsanitary conditions, yet the township subjects its employees to them every day.”

Local 191 State Delegate Joe Zutchero, who has been on for eight years, wears badge #101. The department is up to badge #129. Of those, 13 are active officers who exited for reasons above and beyond compensation.

Working conditions have compromised retention so much that, “You don’t know who the next person is that’s leaving or planning on leaving,” Zutchero disclosed.

This is another side of the retention challenge. Departments that don’t take care of the working conditions have as many exit wounds as the ones who don’t take care of the officers.

Zutchero shared that East Windsor did not replace its fleet cars until parts for the existing vehicles were no longer available. They went to new uniforms when the tailor stopped making their Class A’s. They didn’t get new radios until they couldn’t get batteries for the old ones.

“The computers that are in half of our fleet, they’re all old and outdated, we can’t get internet, so therefore they don’t work,” Zutchero added. “We fight these battles with the administration and it’s always, ‘no.’ So whether or not it’s from the budget or not being advocated for from the administration, we don’t know, and we’re left in the dark.”

Fernandez noted that members are leaving for the potential for fulfillment in other places. Or because their experience and voice are actually valued in other departments. And that there’s a trickle-down effect leading out the door.

“It’s frightening because these are all quality people that we’ve put so much time and energy into training,” Fernandez explained. “And when you get officers trained so you can finally count on them for backup and then they leave, that’s demoralizing.

Which has really backed up on East Windsor.

“The ripple effect of one person leaving is more profound than the public would ever know,” Fernandez added. “Morale is the lowest that I’ve ever seen it in my entire career.”

Retention span

Departments that are truly interested in retention will read what’s happening in Paterson, East Windsor, Madison, Atlantic City and so many more agencies not as exit signs, but as warning signs. Jimenez submits that Newark, Jersey City, Trenton and other urban departments are going to have the same issues as Paterson when their recruits go to the academy.

But even the increases in overtime available since the AG took control of the department aren’t going to block the exits. Especially since it’s so easy for younger officers to use technology to find and apply for better opportunities.

The question for many cities in New Jersey will be the same as in Paterson: Will there be enough manpower to maintain the police presence needed to proactively police?

“We don’t even have enough to handle the call volume,” Jimenez declared.

Fernandez said he worries how long his members can go on like this before – as someone posted on the Local 191 Facebook
page – tragedy comes to town.

“When you feel that defeated, how long before people get apathetic to doing police work,” he conjectured. “I mean, I guess you could use the term de-policing. But I mean it’s demoralizing is what it is.”